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Bad advice for Mary Sue writers - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
fernwithy
fernwithy
Bad advice for Mary Sue writers
"Give her flaws, you know...don't make her so perfect."

I think we've probably all given this advice to one aspiring fanfic writer or another in the hope of helping her avoid a Mary Sue. But is it really good advice?

The problem with "give her flaws" is that it's coming after the fact--you've got a character, now, like a present-wrapper who discovers there's not quite enough paper to make its way around the box, you grumble and put on a patch. Sometimes it's not even of matching paper. Sometimes, it's the Sunday comics.

Sometimes it's fun to break down a character you've been using and figure out why you write him or her a certain way (heaven knows, I enjoyed doing so with Sirius and Tonks), but that's fun in a very different vein from actual writing. If you're listing traits and adding flaws, your character is just words on a page; she's not breathing. And if she's not breathing by the time an author has finished a story for a reviewer to critique with that particular advice, it's pretty much too late.

The character needs to function as a whole character, not as any collection of traits. Yes, it's true--almost any person can be described in a list of traits and attributes, but with characters as with people, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. So if you're still grafting totally new things onto a character at that late date...

Well, it doesn't bode well.

Heck, I'd even question the, "Don't make perfect characters" or "Characters must have flaws" school of thought, at least inasmuch as it suggests that major failings must be present in every character. For a main character, that's arguable. But does, say, Lavender Brown require a fatal flaw? For Shifts, I have a pretty big handful of OCs who teach at Smeltings (and the people who surround them), but they do not, functionally, need any flaws. As it happens, they have them--Alan is very impatient, Anna's a gossip, Joe drinks too much and mopes around, Miriam's over-protective, and little Daniel Morse thrives on melodrama. But those just happen to be part of the way the characters came to me. None of them are important to the plot and none will come into play. Daniel could as easily have just been a really idealized kid who makes Remus think he'd like to have kids. There's no reason for him not to be, since he has no major impact on the story and no character arc. He's just part of the setting--one of Remus's favorite students. (What, our Remus... play favorites? Nah!)

And even in the main character, the flaw need not be fatal. My Elizabeth Phelan has the rather distinct flaw of not being clear on whether or not she bit Remus on purpose, but it doesn't really come into play in the plot of Lines of Descent (the character arc, yes; the plot, no, because there's no external conflict about it). It's just a tic she has, and until she dies, Remus hasn't the foggiest idea that she has ever felt anything but remorse.

The even worse advice than "give her flaws" is "Don't use original characters." This is just goofy--if you're looking at any part of the canon world that we don't see in canon, you're going to need to use original characters. They can also give a fresh look at the world and the canon characters. And they can be interesting in their own right. Suggesting that people shouldn't write OCs really robs the fanfic world of a lot of valuable stories. So does labeling any old OC as Mary Sue, just on the virtue of being an OC. There are a lot of very good OCs. There is no such thing as a good Mary Sue. Mary Sue is, by definition, bad. Otherwise, she'd just be an OC.

Better advice is to write necessary OCs, if that makes sense.

Mark Twain wrote that "the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there." (Also, that "the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others," which I find amusing.) I would amend that for fanfic to read, "the characters in your story, both canon and original, shall exhibit sufficient excuse for being there." Don't crowd the stage.

  • Don't use an OC to do what a canon character is meant to do. In other words, if Harry is prophesied to defeat Voldemort, an OC may not be the one to defeat Voldemort.
  • Don't use an OC to take on the role that a canon character already has. This is slightly different, in that it doesn't muck around with fate. If you have an insecure, bookish girl, living in Gryffindor tower and giving Harry advice on his homework and being his research committee... well, that's Hermione's job, thanks. If Hermione is out of commission for some reason (turned into a cat or something) and Harry seeks out help in the library, the character should be suitably different from Hermione to cause Harry to feel Hermione's absence more accutely rather than less so. And then, oops... JKR has already beaten us to it: Luna, the anti-Hermione, is right there in the wings waiting. So a new character with a brainy streak advising Harry at Hogwarts is inadvisable in any case. Don't use an OC to do a canon job. On the other hand, if he's in Surrey for the summer and runs into a problem, it could be interesting to have a brainy Muggle from Little Whinging walk him through using the local library to find his answers. Maybe someone that Dudley's gang has been tormenting.
  • OCs who have been there all along tend to work better than OCs who make a grand entrance. There are lots of people Harry doesn't notice in the books. Making your OC one of the nameless faces around Harry will make a less jarring introduction to the world.
  • Don't interrupt the canon. That's probably the most important point differentiating Mary Sues from OCs. All eyes must be focused on Mary Sue, therefore she must become the center of attention, and all things must hinge on her. Ergo, she's interrupted the story. It ceases to be the story of Harry, or even of the war with Voldemort, and becomes, "How Mary Sue came to Hogwarts." (Or how she won the war with the Galactic Empire, or how she was the one who really redeemed Xena, or why she's a better Slayer than Buffy.) Mary Sue, in order to be Mary Sue, distorts the world that she's in, warps it. A good OC should never, never do this.


  • Thoughts for the day.

    Self-pimpage: My original character essay at TFN.

I feel a bit...: blah blah

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Comments
glitterdemon From: glitterdemon Date: September 7th, 2004 12:56 pm (UTC) (Link)
*applauds* I say the best OC is the one you don't realise you've even created until you look back on your story and go, "oh!"
volandum From: volandum Date: September 7th, 2004 12:57 pm (UTC) (Link)
Thank you! I'm adding this to memories for reference.
ashtur From: ashtur Date: September 7th, 2004 01:10 pm (UTC) (Link)
I hope you don't mind my adding one little thing :)

While an OC should never be the focus of the universe, or even a fair sized chunk of it, it is permissible (and can work very well) for them to be the focus within a particular niche of that universe. That's why, for example, Abby Loomis works. Her little world does revolve around her, and what she is doing, but it's also very clear from the story that she is just one cog in the much larger machine that is the the story of the Potterverse.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: September 7th, 2004 01:17 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yes, absolutely. I was trying to think of a good way to word that, then forgot what I was trying to think of. ;)
sreya From: sreya Date: September 7th, 2004 01:19 pm (UTC) (Link)
It's also very clear that the reason Abby's little world revolves her is because she's been secluded in a very tiny little world, and the story is what happens when something breaks into that world and upsets her routines.

At any rate, I agree that "give her flaws" isn't good advice at all for a Mary Sue. However, I do wonder about "give her a challenge", although that may come from my perspective that a character-centric story is all about overcoming a challenge, and the stories that make me wince are the ones in which Miss Sue just floats through and doesn't even break a nail while saving the world.
melyanna From: melyanna Date: September 7th, 2004 02:35 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh gosh, there is no quicker way to make me want to pull all my hair out (a considerable task) than to tell me to "give her flaws". I went through a crisis a while back about one of my characters, and that was the advice I got. I had no idea how one would do that. The character is who she is — she's not a recipe.
azaelia_culnamo From: azaelia_culnamo Date: September 7th, 2004 02:54 pm (UTC) (Link)
Fernwithy, I wish that the writer of the Mary Sue Litmus test, and every jerk who has flamed an OC for being a Mary Sue, would read what you wrote.

I have a character I created, but I won't post the fics relating to her on fandom sites. Why? Because I know that since she's best friends with Tonks, dates Bill Weasley, and is Remus Lupin's little sister, people would dismiss her as a Mary Sue before even noticing the fact that she's not perfect.

I also give her and Tonks two other close friends, one of whom only really has one clear flaw. Guess what? She's still a good character.

Oh, and by the way... Elizabeth Phelan is definitely not a Mary Sue. Did someone call her that? If they did, tell them to talk to me.

(If anyone is interested in the fanfic, I will link you. It's at a site for another fandom - Earth's Children - but they accept non-EC fics there too).
vytresna From: vytresna Date: September 7th, 2004 03:02 pm (UTC) (Link)
Hey guys, follow her pimpage to her essay on pacing and narrative - it's quite good.

You've made me immensely curious about this "Extended Universe" - I've really missed something, haven't I? Would that be the Star Wars novels (other than Episode I and Episode II) or is it something I never heard of? Ah, speaking of which, I have to read the Episode I and Episode II novels, because I'm a fan of both Brooks and Salvatore and it might redeem the movies in my eyes.

You may have just won a convert - congrats.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: September 7th, 2004 04:29 pm (UTC) (Link)
The EU is the collection of novels, juvy and adult, that are related to SW (vaguely, in most cases, imho). The novelizations of the movies are quasi-canonical, though the prequels have rendered sections of them obsolete.

The Brooks TPM novel is marvelous. Really the best of the novelizations. The Salvatore AotC novelization stinks. It's really slapped together and totally misses the emotional resonance of the movie. I saw quite a few fanfic writers who did better work with it.
silverhill From: silverhill Date: September 7th, 2004 03:52 pm (UTC) (Link)
Maybe "Give her dimension" would be a better suggestion?

I totally agree with you about the need for a character to function as a whole. But I understand where the "give her flaws" suggestion comes from.

Many Mary Sues have flaws that aren't flaws. They typically fall into three categories: not-her-fault angsty flaws (such as being abused), flaws that aren't (such as having freckles or being too nice or a tomboy) and flaws-by-omission (such as not being an animagus).

But the advice to give a character flaws is about creating a fleshed-out, believable character.

And, by the same token, villians need redeeming qualities. A bad guy who is only evil and doesn't care about anything but being evil isn't very interesting. A bad guy who is driven by a cause (whether worthy or not) to do evil things is much more compelling.

mafdet From: mafdet Date: September 7th, 2004 05:58 pm (UTC) (Link)
Maybe "Give her dimension" would be a better suggestion?


Yes, I agree with this. You can't just tack on flaws that really have nothing to do with the character. I find that the more I explore a character, the more the flaws (and virtues) emerge. It's an intuitive process and one can't accomplish it by totting up a list of "good points/bad points."

I have a story that I may or may not work on further with an OC in a prominent position. Aurelia, my OC, is the beautiful, smart only child of pureblood parents who adore her. And guess what? She's an insufferable, vain brat who is deeply into her appearance and expects the world to bow down and kiss her feet because she's beautiful, talented and loved. And she loves to drink, snort powdered billywig stings, and hang out in seedy wizarding nightclubs. In other words, the more I explored Aurelia's character, the more her flaws became apparent as a natural extention of her being who she is. For a beautiful, talented and spoiled girl from a "good" family to be humble and sweet would cross over into Mary Sue territory.

Let's take one of JKR's own canon characters, Remus Lupin (one of my favorites). His biggest flaw is that he's so desperate to be liked that he won't stand up to his friends or for himself. This is exactly the kind of flaw that a gentle, sensitive boy who is poor and has a horrible affliction which renders him an outcast would naturally develop. Remus is desperate for friendship and to fit in, and is unwilling to rock the boat. This is an example of a flaw not being pasted on but rather developing out of a well-rounded character.
h311ybean From: h311ybean Date: September 7th, 2004 05:05 pm (UTC) (Link)

Give her flaws

I like your point about grafted-on traits that might not jell with the rest of the character :) I think that another problem with adding flaws to an OC is that an inexperienced writer might overdo it -- e.g., make the OC ugly, bad-tempered, friendless, etc. (and still the center of attention) -- and wind up with a totally unappealing character who is still, despite all this uglying- and dumbing-down, a Mary Sue.
persephone_kore From: persephone_kore Date: September 7th, 2004 07:22 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Give her flaws

ugly, bad-tempered, friendless, etc. (and still the center of attention)

...Snape?

Actually, I know what you mean, I just couldn't resist. I've seen people at an anti-Mary-Sue community wander off into why their OCs aren't Mary Sues, and... um. Heh. Some of them still sound like it, and then there was this strange thing about giving a character a magic ring that warned her of danger -- but she always took it off and ignored it. Huh? I suppose this could make sense in context in any number of ways, but the explanation just makes the girl sound like a dimwit.

fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: September 7th, 2004 07:39 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Give her flaws

Well, being dimwitted is a flaw, to be fair... :)

Yeah--I'm at deleterius and hang out at pottersues from time to time, but that makes me hyper-aware of potential Sue-i-ness, not defensive of it when I do it. (In fact, my rule that it's easier to get away with an OC who was there all along than someone who makes an entrance comes from the fact that I couldn't get my Tolkien!Sue at all sporked--apparently specifically because I'd integrated her into the story six ways to Tuesday, she didn't commit Sue crimes.
persephone_kore From: persephone_kore Date: September 7th, 2004 10:21 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Give her flaws

Yes, it is, but I didn't get the impression that was actually the point, somehow. It seemed more as if the idea was to dilute the magic trinket's value into nothing than that the character was supposed to be a moron. Or perhaps I'm just too easily frustrated with unexplained stupidity.
isiscolo From: isiscolo Date: September 7th, 2004 05:39 pm (UTC) (Link)
I cannot agree more.
ladyelaine From: ladyelaine Date: September 7th, 2004 06:13 pm (UTC) (Link)
Heh. I'm one of those who tells folks designing main OCs to give them flaws. *blush* Not flaws like a tragic past and a fiery temper (which aren't really flaws), but flaws like a prejudice, or a truly shameful thing that they've done. A main character needs something within themselves that they have to conquer, not just an outside force.

And storynapping, yes. The only Mary Sue should be the plot itself. I've had experience with OCs stepping into a story that's curiously missing the original character, which never fails to push my buttons (and they always have violet eyes--or sea green--or even "sea change," whatever that means--and freakishly colored hair).
persephone_kore From: persephone_kore Date: September 7th, 2004 07:00 pm (UTC) (Link)
Well.... a fiery temper really can be a pretty nasty flaw. I should know. I've got one, and my behavior when I indulge it is not charming or attractive at all.

I think probably what you really want them to do is think out the character so that (much as Chrysantza describes) logical flaws and consequences of their behavior and background emerge. A fierce temper but only for the sake of other people, for instance, might be improbable except in context of some self-esteem problems. *g*


mafdet From: mafdet Date: September 7th, 2004 11:00 pm (UTC) (Link)
I agree that a "fiery temper" can be a pretty nasty flaw. However, with a Sue, the fiery temper is inevitably presented in an "oh isn't she just Cyoot and Spunkee?" way. I once even saw a Suefic (on deleterius I believe) where Sue kicked Draco in the goolies but he wuvved her anyway. That is NOT a normal male reaction to having one's goolies kicked!

It's the way the "temper" is presented that makes the difference between a realistic OC flaw and just another way to make Sue feisty and adorable. Real people and good OC's suffer consequences from their tempers, Sue does not.
persephone_kore From: persephone_kore Date: September 8th, 2004 08:31 am (UTC) (Link)
I know. Hence why I said what one really wants is exploration and logical consequences -- and why "give her flaws" doesn't actually work if the author is sticking them on resentfully and declining to draw any logical conclusions from them.
mafdet From: mafdet Date: September 8th, 2004 03:47 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think your point about "logical consequences" is a good guide for writers. I use the "free lunch" metaphor, as in there is no such thing as a free lunch or a get-out-of-jail-free card. One of the clues that one is dealing with a Mary Sue instead of a good OC is that one keeps thinking "Huh? There's no way that would happen! Hell would freeze over before McGonagall would let one of her Gryffindors appear in the Great Hall wearing a navel-baring crop top and sporting a pierced eyebrow!" or "Huh? There's no way that Draco would fall in love with a Muggle-born who kicks him in the naughty bits!"

I know that when reading Harry Potter, for instance, one has to accept that people can fly around on broomsticks and perform magic and that Dumbledore is the most lax headmaster on the face of the planet, but there's a certain cause-and-effect that distinguishes OC's from Mary Sues. An OC can be named Serenity Starlight and have violet eyes and still be a good OC as long as she doesn't warp canon and cause canon characters to act OOC.
penknife From: penknife Date: September 8th, 2004 05:47 pm (UTC) (Link)
I agree that sticking flaws onto a finished character is going to produce strange results. But often if an author thinks her character doesn't have any flaws, that's a warning sign that she either hasn't thought the character through very will, or is too much in love with the character to write about him realistically -- bad things will never happen to this character, even if logically they should. And often that means that the character can't serve whatever his function in the plot was supposed to be.
redonethegreat From: redonethegreat Date: September 10th, 2004 04:38 am (UTC) (Link)
Actually, speaking of Mary Sues, even though I usually try to avoid any original characters, I've found some pretty delightful ones even if they ARE blatantly Mary Sues. Everybody likes them, they end up being soulmates with one of the canonical characters, saving lives, you know all the yadda-yadda; but they're so well crafted, three-dimensional, complete realistic characters in a complete universe that they are an absolute joy to read.

Maybe you might also consider this advice: if you want to write an OFC, make it honestly YOURSELF. Let her be a true, natural Mary Sue, let her be you as you are in real life.
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